Brazos de Amor

My time here in Nicaragua is definitely winding down. I still have a month until I’m home, but the majority of that time will be spent traveling, which means I have begun to say goodbye to the things I’ve routinely been doing. My least favorite goodbye was to Brazos de Amor, the elementary school where I’ve been giving English classes. Those mornings with the niños were often the highlight of my week and overall the coolest part of my time here. I mean, they weren’t all fun and games, but they were incredibly rewarding. I sort of got the hang of giving lessons by looking up a lot of ideas online, getting input from other teachers, and winging it. But planning classes is hard, especially for little ones who have short attention spans! Sometimes it was also hard for me to explain things in Spanish, but the kids were helpful and we were always able to figure it out. By our last class, my 6th graders were able to form simple sentences about themselves and their families, count to 100, come up with an English word for (almost) every letter in the alphabet, and sing a handful of songs. The 1st graders couldn’t get enough of the “Hello” song, the 2nd graders never stopped bombarding me with hugs before I left class, the 3rd graders always wanted to know “How do you say — in English?,” and the 4th graders overcame the fear of speaking English in front of their peers. Gosh, I am so stinking proud of them. They are amazing. They come from families where life is not easy. Some are abused and malnourished. I knew that because the director told me before I began teaching, but there are also things I could see. Some of the kids are tiny for their age. Sometimes a student would be totally withdrawn from what was going on in class, looking way too preoccupied for an 8 year old. It’s heartbreaking. They would fight pretty regularly, from poking each other with pencils to punching to straight up face-offs in which I got between them and escorted them back to their desks. These would end in tears, anger, continued provocation, and more face-offs. I didn’t know how to handle it at all. I didn’t really know how to reprimand them in Spanish, except to say something like “We don’t fight.” I felt helpless, overwhelmed and just sad that they are learning such aggressive behavior at a young age. Some days, the kids were super rowdy and I could not redirect their focus to the lesson. I have so much respect for the teachers there. They are incredibly patient and loving, but they also keep the students disciplined. There were multiple times during my classes when the teacher was outside and the kids were straight up out of control – running around, hitting each other, playing Pokemon, coloring, yelling, and totally oblivious to my attempts to restore order. Then their teacher would come in, and, with just a look and a few words, the students would sit back down and look attentively at the board. It was moments like those, or when I underestimated the amount of time an activity or lesson would take and did not know what to do next, when I realized how amazing teachers are. It takes this combination of love, authority, knowledge, patience, organization, and lots of other characteristics…Yep, teachers are amazing. Other memorable moments at Brazos de Amor included the fumigation guy coming in and blasting the classrooms with gases while we waited outside; the day all the students received free hair gel (they were stoked); nurses coming and giving immunizations, which caused a girl to throw up during our English class; and the mothers’ day celebration in which students recited poems they’d written, danced, sang and performed skits for their mothers. Basically, every day was unique. I love those kids. I love entering the school and having them say “Good morning, teacher!” I love when something clicks, and English makes a little bit more sense to them. I love when the 2nd grade teacher asks me to write down some English words so she can keep teaching when I’m gone. I love when they give me adorable drawings. I love when the kids surround me and try to get to the center to hug me and I can barely keep my balance. I love their laughs. I love that they are willing and excited to learn even when their life is tough. What an amazing opportunity. I will truly miss those niños.

Rain Forest Shenanigans

I had the incredible opportunity to travel with the university to Bosawás, a national reserve that takes up a large part of northern Nicaragua. The reserve mostly consists of rainforest. It is home to tons of plants and trees. While we trekked, our guides pointed out bamboo (that grows at a rate of 1 meter every day!), pine trees (in a tropical rainforest?!), maple trees, and trees from prehistoric times (we’re talking dinosaurs). And those were just a few of the hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of varieties that grow in the reserve. Suffice it to say that it was green everywhere and always interesting. Bosawás also has crazy cool animal life – jaguars, sloths, birds, snakes, frogs, bugs (large ones), and plenty more. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any jaguars or sloths. I’d imagine it would be an incredible site for wildlife biology research.

While we were in this world of LIFE in so many forms, we stayed at an educational center that had a few small houses and rooms for guests. It was so tranquil and lovely! There was a short path that led to a waterfall. We learned about some of the environmental problems in Nicaragua, such as the water shortage in some cities. We also learned about the bees that they raise at the center and tried some of the pure nectar which has a crazy flavor – it’s bitter, tangy, sweet, sour, kind of everything!

Each morning, I woke up to the sound of rain. It felt great to stay under a blanket and listen 🙂 Then we ate an incredible breakfast – beans with lime and chili flavor, fresh fruit, coffee from the nearby farms, freshly baked bread (I think I ate 5 pieces), pancakes with their own honey, and granola. What a way to start the day! Then we went on hikes. On the first day we took a fairly short hike to a waterfall. Along the way we stopped often to learn about the plants and such. The waterfall was gorgeous. It fell quite a distance onto a rocky area and formed a pool that trickled into the rainforest. We adventured along the rocks underneath the falls, swam across the small pool, and got to a high rock where there was a great view of the rainforest and the hills in the distance. We were all wearing our hiking clothes and rainboots that the center had provided, so we got completely soaked. We stayed cool on the hike back! We were welcomed back by a lunch that did not disappoint. I stuffed my belly with fresh juices, the best gallo pinto I’ve had yet, handmade tortillas, juicy chicken, and tons of flavorful veggies. Naturally, we all napped after lunch, explored a bit more around the center, then had an equally impressive dinner. That night, we took a quick hike to a clear spot and stargazed. The skies were clear and absolutely sparkling.

On the second day, we took a more intense hike. This time, we summited the mountain and arrived at the top of the waterfall! The path got pretty steep and they’d constructed ladders for us to scurry up at points. Between the intensity of the hike and the humidity, I was literally dripping with sweat by the time we got to the top. Fortunately, there was a natural swimming hole which cooled us right off 🙂

Bosawás was amazing. I got to see a type of environment I’ve never seen before and be blown away by the diversity of creation. God is quite the artist. 🙂 Swimming under the waterfall and hiking through the rainforest will definitely be some of my fondest memories of Nicaragua.

Neature and Life Lessons

One of the most common things I’d heard about studying abroad – along with “It’s the best!” “You have to do it!!” etc. – was that you learn a lot about yourself. Now, I’m not one who naturally stops and reflects on stuff like, “Who am I?” But as I’ve been here in Nicaragua, surrounded by the unfamiliar, that’s a question I keep finding answers to. For example, living in Montana, it’s super common to claim what you like to do as hiking, skiing, and other nature-focused activities. I usually say those things too, but these last couple weeks really solidified that I love nature. I spend my weeks in Managua, a decently large, busy, modern city. It’s not until I get outside of the city until I realize how much I miss seeing countryside, forests, mountains or small towns. The last two weekends I’ve gotten a healthy dose of nature and am feeling rejuvenated.

Last Friday morning, the 6 of us girls from the U.S. hopped into a mini bus to go on an ISEP-sponsored weekend outing! Hooray! We drove about 3 hours towards the north/central part of Nica. Along the way our driver played love ballads from the 80s. They got old pretty quickly, and I had “My Heart Will Go On” stuck in my head for the next couple days. The city gave way to open, hilly countryside. This time of year it’s all brownish/yellow, but I still find it beautiful. We drove by coffee plantations, farms and ranches. We entered Matagalpa, a small city among forested hills. A few kilometers up, we arrived at our destination: Selva Negra (Black Jungle). I think it’s described as an ecolodge. I didn’t exactly know what that meant, but I’m now thinking it’s an environmentally-focused campground sorta thang. There are cabins for the guests connected by little roads and trails with gardens, ponds, and swings dispersed throughout the area. It’s all very tree-y and green. There are a bunch of trails that start right by the cabins and wind through the jungle and up the mountain. I loved it. It is so tranquil, the air is so fresh, everything smells good, I wanted to take a picture of everything I saw, I didn’t want to go inside, I told the girls I may not go back to Managua, and so forth. When we arrived it was sunny but not hot, later it got foggy, then it rained [all night]. I had this odd feeling…I don’t know if I remember how to describe it…I almost felt chilly! Haha it felt so good to wear a light jacket and pants and to sleep with a blanket!

On Friday afternoon, we did this sweet hike up a mountain that overlooked the valley and Matagalpa. At the top, they have constructed a huge cross and statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The clouds moved in as we reached the top, so it felt like we were in the clouds! It was raining, but a very soft, mist-like rain. It felt lovely. On Saturday, we took the trails from the cabins into the jungle. The rain had cleared up but it remained nice and cool. We were just surrounded by green and these great big trees. Some of the trees have these crazy roots that are above the ground and wind into loops. Others have trunks that look like they’re made up of dozens of smaller vines that have wound together so tightly that they’re now one being. It’s a magical world J We didn’t see any creatures, which is probably good. If I would’ve seen a monkey I don’t know how well I’d respond. Those things are creepy! Anyway, Selva Negra is beautiful and I am so glad I was able to spend the weekend there.

I’m learning another important lesson about myself (and the world). I’m seeing firsthand how good I have it as an American. Life is so easy. Not for everyone in the US, I realize that, but wow. I am incredibly blessed and it is hard to see how the majority of the people in the world live. It legitimately hurts my heart. And it makes me think – how should I be using my time here? Yes, there are definitely wonderful places to see and adventures to be had, but there are also so many people in need! I can’t just be here, living the rich Nicaraguan life and ignore these people’s realities. Feeling convicted, I asked Mary Helen (who works at the International Office and basically knows all) how I can volunteer. The next day, I was touring an elementary school, and two days later I was teaching English classes. The school is called Brazos de Amor (Arms of Love). It was created by this Nicaraguan couple in a poor neighborhood on the edge of Managua. The neighborhood has rutted dirt roads, lots of stray dogs, trash all over, and small houses that always have laundry hanging on the clothesline. The school has a couple hundred students or so, from kindergarten to 6th grade. They wear uniforms (blue pants and a white collared shirt) and look adorable. But they come from tough situations. The director was telling me that the majority of students come from a single-parent household or are raised by step-parents. Many are abused and/or malnourished. There are behavior problems. They don’t have to come to school, but they do. The school is an amazing place. I am so grateful that I can meet these kids and the teachers who work there. When I taught on Thursday, the classes were so good! They were engaged and received me warmly. When I was leaving the 2nd grade classroom, a couple girls came up to give me a goodbye hug. Promptly, the entire class was on its feet, mobbing me as they tried to give me a hug. Their teacher was nearly prying them away. Holy cow. I think that’s how it feels when your heart melts. I will teach each class, 1st-6th, for one hour a week. I don’t know how much those few English classes will help them, but I will do my best. And I will love them and pray for them. These children, because they were born to a certain family in a certain country, have a reality that is foreign to me. It’s not fair. But it can still be beautiful. I believe they have more to teach me about life and joy and perseverance than I can teach about the language.

So, my fellow Americans, enjoy what you’ve got.

Greetings from Nica,

Ellie Hoffman